My company, InfraTrac, is science central. And we still can’t possibly overcome every technical challenge we’re faced with all on our own. The answer? A scientific advisory board. Scientific advisors aren’t easy to recruit, but they add invaluable brainpower to your company. Getting them on board is an art as well as a science.

Using instruments small enough to fit in a smartphone, we use light to analyze the components of drugs, allowing us to detect counterfeits. While we were in the development phase, our challenge was to learn about portability technologies and then turn that knowledge into marketable applications in multiple industries. We knew that melding the applications and the science would require some serious expertise, so we sought out the smartest people we could find and started peppering them with questions. Then we asked the best contributors to join a scientific advisory board.  Here’s what we learned in the process of getting them to sign on.

Before you think about putting together a compensation package, you need to realize that most of the people who will make great scientific advisors are not business people.  Their priorities and values may not be the same as yours. Money is generally not a key motivator. We found that it was worth asking them the big questions: What is important to you?  Do you want to get rich?  Do you want to keep your day job?  Do you want us to provide opportunities for your students?  It is not likely that a professor will give up tenure to join your company. That’s partly because of the job security. It’s also partly because professors get to choose their research topics, and employees don’t.

What, then, do scientists and academics tend to value?

  • Publication, especially academic articles that further their careers. You can help by providing questions and data worth studying and even by helping to write the article and get it submitted to a journal. Promoting your advisors as conference speakers, even at poster sessions, is a good way to raise their visibility—and yours.  Presenters often attend conferences for free, which is a good thing for your budget.  Their presence also attracts other experts, which can be a great recruitment strategy.
  • Patents. In a perfect world the advisors would come up with the ideas, and all you'd have to do is pay the lawyers.
  • Ideas. Put the smart people together, by email if necessary, give them a hard problem to gnaw on, and let them learn from other members of your advisory board.  This is the fun part--a frolic in the park for an active mind.  Do the prep work: Make sure everyone knows the existing state of the art, including recent patent filings, so you don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. 
  • Influence. Academics’ ivory tower ideas don't always make real things happen. You can help fix this problem, which can be extremely rewarding. An advisor may have an advanced technology in search of practical applications and real-world tests.  You can provide those applications and tests, then flip this back into a scholarly paper of the type: “Use of [Academic Technique] to [Solve Your Real-World Problem].” These serve a dual purpose: The advisors get a publication, and show that they are doing something important. You get a white paper that serves as validation.
  • Bragging rights. You can sometimes make your advisors happy just by showcasing them on your website, in your blog, and even in a press release. The press release works particularly well for retired experts: They can hardly issue a release about themselves, but it shows they are doing active, exciting things that matter.
  • Equity. You are going to make it big, and your advisors deserve to share in your success.  Some of this is about long-term financial rewards, of course, but there are bragging rights to consider, too: They were smart enough to see the wisdom of your vision.

As one of our advisors put it, “You can’t afford to pay me what I’m worth – and anyway, this is what I do for fun.”  What fun – as a company, our advisors have given us hundreds of hours of free labor, multiple patents, and credibility.